Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Embracing Awkward


I recently attended a large fundraising event and ran into several people who I had not seen in years. One woman came up to me and complimented me on how good I look -- "such a fun short haircut" she said. I proceeded to my standard response -- "I'm just glad it came back" (insert awkward giggle). She looked puzzled and then asked what was new. I of course went on this long perhaps dramatic explanation of how after this past year with the breast cancer and all, I'm really trying to take pause, and not sure exactly what lies ahead for me. She looked at me with a blank stare. She had no idea I had been dealing with cancer. She was just engaging in casual chit chat, but I of course was talking from my cancer bubble -- awkward! We then proceeded to talk about Pilates.
I remember at the start of my journey, several people explaining to me how I would start to look at life as "before cancer" and "after cancer." While I empathized with the fact that is how they viewed their experience, surely it wasn't that black and white. After all, I vowed from the beginning that cancer wouldn't define me. I wish it wasn't the case and it simply just didn't matter any more, but the thing is, it does. As much as I like to believe I am out of my cancer bubble, I'm very aware that it is still very much a part of my daily life.
I still wake up every Thursday morning thinking it is chemo day. I still have the gnawing fear at every meal that a wave of nausea will occur. I still rely on my pill box every morning to keep track of my medications. I still step out of the shower every day and see the scars on my body. I still have the overwhelming moments of emotion that wash over me at the most unpredictable times. I still feel annoyed that despite not having any breast tissue, I have to perform breast exams -- always with a knot in my stomach. And I find myself feeling conflicted of not wanting to think about the cancer at all and then suddenly feeling terrified I'll forget.
Then there are the doctors and other survivors who are quick to remind that it is never really over. Given there are no recommended body scans or blood tests, the only indicator of the cancer coming back is symptom-based. So an ache is no longer just an ache.
Despite the paranoia, emotion and disorientation, all the good stuff and lessons learned are slowly but surely inching their way into my consciousness. I feel more lighthearted. I feel more present and loving. I enjoy my time with others and myself on an entirely new level. But I am simply embracing that I will be in a constant socially awkward state as I navigate how to set new boundaries while being open to new possibilities, staying responsible to my current obligations, and trying to stay present, loving, and honest with myself amongst it all. But most importantly, it is the awkward moments that remind me to lighten up! And when all else fails, at least there is Pilates to chit chat about.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Got Cancer: Now What?


There is really nothing that can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis. It is a shocking and momentary devastation that is overwhelming on so many different levels -- physically, emotionally and spiritually. But perhaps the greatest challenge is identifying the immediate logistical next steps of what a diagnosis means while you are trying to process these levels.
Below is a "best of the best" advice that I both learned through experience and received from others during those first few weeks of my cancer diagnosis that I found to be helpful to my personal journey (realizing that for everyone it is different).
1. It's okay to freak out. 
Yes, this is a big deal. You could die.
2. You probably won't die.
Or at least you don't have enough information to know yet. Many cancers are very treatable, so honor the initial freak out and start arming yourself with some information to empower your journey.
3. Find a team you trust.
The number one recommendation that I wish someone told me was to meet with an oncologist first (vs. a surgeon). An oncologist will talk you through the type of cancer you have and provide a recommendation of a treatment plan and ideally a recommendation of a surgeon he or she trusts. An oncologist is likely to provide more of a holistic and emotional understanding of the disease, whereas some surgeons (although not all) tend to be more straightforward and direct in their approach.
For my family and me, this direct approach from a surgeon as our first consultation was too shocking and harsh. In hindsight, perhaps it was simply because it was our first meeting and denial was met head on with reality. I ultimately ended up at MD Anderson with the same treatment plan as that the first surgeon we met with prescribed, but the approach was so much different.
NOTE: If you choose to go an alternative path, I still recommend hearing both sides of Western and Eastern approaches. I always thought that if I were to ever get cancer, I would go the alternative route. But as soon as I heard how treatable my breast cancer was and the science to support it, I chose that path but had a very comprehensive complementary approach alongside (meditation, acupuncture, diet, exercise, etc.).
4. Get a second opinion.
This was the last thing I wanted to do, but my family really encouraged. I just wanted to find my medical team and get the tumor out of me. But it really is a good idea to get a second opinion -- ideally from a center of excellence. It's likely they will validate the initial recommendation you heard, but they could have an approach, insight or other information that could be helpful. Ultimately it is your decision.
5. This really is the worst time.
Or at least the most overwhelming time, with all the appointments; understanding insurance coverage; sharing with friends and family, etc. Everyone told me that I would feel so much better when I had a plan in place. And they were right. What I wasn't prepared for is that the plan could take up to three to six weeks to have in place. Assuming you don't need immediate surgery or treatment, have patience and know that you will feel some peace soon.
6. Suck it up and let people help.
Whether you choose to be very public in sharing your diagnosis as I was, or private, people are going to want to help and you are going to need it. For most of my life, I was convinced I could do everything on my own, so I saw this as my opportunity to let go and embrace the support surrounding me. As family and friends can attest, I got very good at asking for help and articulating my needs very quickly. (We are now working on boundaries.) Be specific and think about things that would be helpful (grocery runs, play dates for your kids, flowers, meal drop off, etc).
7. Stay off the Internet.
One of the best pieces of advice I got was to have a friend and family member do the Internet research for you. At the end of the day, you should be relying on your medical team to advise you, but it is too tempting to not get online. Having said that, there is some really f*#@ed up stuff out there, and this is the last thing you need to be dealing with. My mom became my Internet-research guru. Granted at times I had to advise her to step away from the computer, but she really became the go to source for distilling the information that would be helpful for me.
8. Be prepared. 
I come from a very strategically minded family, so we were beyond prepared with key questions for each appointment. Contrary to the above, this is the time to get on the Internet with searches that are very specific (questions to ask my oncologist about breast-cancer treatment). There are some great resources out there.
9. Celebrate, or at least go to a silly movie.
For me, it was important that I celebrate the milestones. Before my bilateral mastectomy, my friends threw me a "bye-bye boobs brunch." We had a "chemo kick-off" party the evening before chemo. While they were all important milestones, they were more distractions that plucked me out of the intensity of the time with some good food, friends, family and laughter.
10. It's gonna be a rough year. But then it is over. 
This was perhaps the most important piece of insight I gained from several friends, that I am only now just coming to appreciate. I remember when my doctor. told me it would be a year of surgeries and treatment, I was devastated and could not even imagine a year of feeling this uncertain, sick and scared. And they were right, it was a really shitty year (the better I start to feel, the more I realize how difficult it was).
But now, as I am re-emerging on the other side with newness all around me (new hair, new perspective, new possibilities), I can see it as the most transformative and healing year of my life. I also realize how fortunate I an that it was just a year, which is not always the case. Sure I will always be living in a post-cancer world, but for the most part, this phase is over.
And like these tips of diagnosis, I am realizing that the lessons learned over this past year are not so much about cancer, as they are about life.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Cancer Love Story


I have a confession. I'm so grateful I got cancer. There, I said it.  It's confusing to confess something so morbid, but as my year cancerversary (February 14) makes its mark, I realize that despite the pain, poking, prodding, and discomfort - this year was perhaps one of the most important of my life. Difficult - yes. Meaningful - absolutely. 

Upon the moment of my diagnosis I knew this would be a year of transformation and transmutation. I was not naive to the barbaric nature of what I knew of the disease and possible treatments, but chose to see it as a love journey utilizing all of the tools in my personal growth + wellness toolkit I had acquired over the years.  I encouraged friends and family to stay away from terms of battle, fight or poison and chose to see all the procedures and treatments as light and love. Naive - perhaps, but with this intention came the gift of being present and the connection to the deepest part of myself. That place where fear, judgement, anxiety, and uncertainty transmute to love, acceptance, compassion and faith.  I witnessed as my "ego," which appeared to control so much throughout my life was being pushed aside as my spirit, lead by surrender began to take hold. Vulnerability became the norm and grace my trusted new confidant.  The juxtaposition of love vs. fear became apparent in everything I was experiencing. 

Early on, a dear friend and gifted photographer, Romy Suskin, said she would like to  document the journey.  The goal was no goal - a first for me. My main priority was I just wanted to capture the essence of where I was in the given moment. We said we would mark the major milestones -- before my surgery (bilateral mastectomy), after the 6 month chemo regime started, and then a final session once I got the "girls" in.  

Our first session was a strange mix of serenity and panic. It was the day before I was leaving for my surgery in Houston at MD Anderson. I had just returned from my cousin's wedding and it was a bittersweet send off as my entire family ushered me with well wishes, while the unspoken loss of so many family members taken from cancer hovered amongst it all.  I can remember feeling worried, confused,  frozen.  I was in uncertain territory where prognosis was not known. 

Our second session was in stark contrast. I was almost giddy.  I had begun  stripping down the layers physically and emotionally, and I was discovering an authenticity in my spirit that felt so innocent, tender, and joyful. I was awake for what felt like the first time in my life. 



Our third session is yet to be scheduled. It marks the stepping forward and I admittedly am not quite sure how to do that. 

But I know it starts with embracing that not knowing, honoring the unbelievable journey, and celebrating perhaps the biggest milestone to date - that of completion of the surgeries and treatments.  It means taking pause, checking-in, and listening.  It means forgiving myself and others when I realize that old patterns and behaviors no longer work. It means continuing to be brave and express myself even in the most vulnerable moments. It means nourishing and  taking care of myself not because of the cancer, but because I love myself and deserve the best. It means letting myself shine and celebrating the milestones of life - however monumental or miniscule. It means allowing myself and others the freedom to be who we are. It means loving and being loved.  It means surrendering to it all. 

As grateful as I am for my year with cancer, I'm even more grateful this chapter has come to a close. I could not have done it without the unbelievable support of my family, friends and co-workers.  The opportunity now exists  in being able to enjoy the gifts of this past year, but without cancer as the catalyst.   Sure there will be residual realizations, insights, moments of panicked symptomology, and follow up appointments. But for the most part, the completion is here.  I'm medically "free from evidence of disease,"  and I'm proud of who I have become in the process.  In many ways, it is fitting that my cancerversary falls on Valentine's Day, for it marks the ultimate love story of all - that with myself.





Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Butterflies, Boobs, and Beginnings


A year ago, around this time I remember pulling up to my office and I saw a butterfly (or maybe it was just a pretty moth) on our office porch. At the moment, it appeared dead and I thought to myself "this can't be good" given butterflies metaphorically represent transformation. But my colleague pointed out that it literally had just emerged from its cocoon (or is it a chrysalis) and so we set it on a leaf and it was on its way. That felt a little better and I could easily get behind the symbology of emerging anew. 

Within days of this, I reached out to my now mentor, teacher and friend Flint Sparks. I had heard him at a TedxAustin talk years ago and had been wanting to connect.  Given it was a new year and sensing some type of change was on the horizon for me, I reached out. The soonest he could see me was in 3 weeks.  That felt good - no rush. I was about to celebrate my annual girls weekend with my high school friends. Life was good.

Fast forward one week to February 7 and my world was forever changed.  The actual day of my diagnosis was on February 14 (Happy Valentine's Day!:-), but my annual exam was on the 7th, and after seeing the expression on my Doctor's face after feeling the lump, I knew, I just knew.  

A week later,  I remember the mammogram, the ultrasound, the biopsy, the look on the radiologist's face when I looked her straight in the eye as she was reviewing my ultrasound and asked her if I had cancer.  And with deep empathy, she looked at me and said, "I do think this is cancer." She was quick to qualify that until the biopsy came back the next day (rushed - which was another indicator), nothing was for certain.  I broke down, asked for my sister, and had that surreal moment I'm sure most people diagnosed with cancer have.

The next days/week were a blur.  Meeting with all sorts of doctors until I found my home at MD Anderson and Texas Oncology with a super star team I felt the utmost confidence in. While my treatment and surgical plan was still to be determined, that was an important piece of the puzzle for my family and I.

Fast forward a couple weeks, and I realized my appointment with Flint was on the calendar. My initial reason for outreach seemed petty at this point, but I figured I would go anyways. As he asked me what brought me there, I explained that my initial outreach was that I was sensing change was on the horizon, now I have been diagnosed with breast cancer. He stopped me right then and told me that there were a few things I should know about him. That one of his specialties is working with cancer patients and helping to cultivate their psycho spiritual experience with it.  And that is how my journey started.  The right people and circumstances showing up EXACTLY when I needed them.  

What I'm realizing is that this is how life works if we can be awake and present enough to welcome it.  Having lived in this tender bubble of awakeness this past year, I can see how my old ways of intellectualizing and problem solving kinda don't work anymore.  I'm realizing that I need to keep taking pause and feeling where I am versus my old ways of seeking approval from others. It's admittedly a little disorienting, almost like I'm rewiring. And wheras it seemed so natural and easy during my treatment phase, as the realities of life creep back in, I now realize that is a conscious choice I can make - in every moment. To be and stay awake.  

Everything is literally coming full circle for me over the next couple of weeks as I go in for my reconstruction surgery on February 6. It will be just under a year exactly.  I can feel myself growing anxious to try and distill all of the lessons learned and insights gained before the year mark hits.  I know this won't happen because life doesn't work that way. At the end of the day we are always evolving - cancer or not.  Regardless, I'm craving that full circle moment, the completion, the bookend, the check mark.  And as is the case with most endings, I realize that there are new beginnings just on the horizon. 

I suppose that similar to that butterfly I discovered a year ago, I too am emerging from the cocoon, except instead of getting my wings, I'm getting new boobs.  

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Do Be Do Be Do

About a year and a half ago I attended my first official meditation retreat. It was with Deepak Chopra and the Chopra Center. Prior to this, I was what would be described as a "crisis meditator" tapping into the practice at the most expected of times (ie: New Year's resolution) or the most desperate times (ie: overly stressed, overwhelmed, etc).  My decision to attend the retreat was a poorly timed and illogical given all of my other commitments, but there was a feeling, an indescribable guidance that was beyond me, and I knew I simply had to go. I now know, that feeling was my spirit, my higher self, G_d, (I'm still not quite sure how to describe this presence, but I'm certain it is there) and as I reflect on this past year, I can see that was the guiding force that I'm pretty sure saved my life.

I remember the first day of the retreat, we were given our own personalized mantra and then told to go meditate for 20 minutes.  What? What do you mean? Just start meditating? I needed more information. I needed to be guided. I needed someone to do it for me.  But as I quickly learned, meditation is not about the moments of enlightenment, but the discomfort of the unknown. It's taking that first sitting of 20 minutes and repeating the mantra. It's continuing to peek one eye open and see how much longer. It's recognizing the chaos of our thoughts.  Once we start to become AWARE of the chaos of our psyche, that's when you introduce the mantra, repeatedly, over and over and over. And sure enough, the 20 minutes are complete. Over time, that 20 minutes becomes 30, 40, 50 - sometimes twice a day. Other times, it just a few moments.  The gifts of meditation are not necessarily in those moments of sitting, but through the discipline of the practice however chaotic, we become more present for the rest of the moments in our day. We begin to take more pauses, we begin to notice our reactive nature, we may begin to act with more patience, more compassion, more love. Or at the very least, we are simply more aware and from awareness breeds change.

There has not been one day that has passed over the course of this year that I have not meditated. Even if it was for just a few moments, I looked to my mantra as my grounding, my centering. I explored different types of mediation (ie: visualization, metta, and others I hope to share). Regardless,  I am convinced it was my discipline leading up to my diagnosis and then the embracing the practice even in the most dire moments that has simply been my saving grace and provided the sense of awareness to listen to my body, to hear the whisper of my spirit, and to surrender, simply surrender.

As I try to make sense of what just happened over this past year, I find myself recalling the words of Deepak Chopra during a question and answer session during that retreat a year and half ago. Ironically, I remember a woman who was actually a breast cancer survivor got up and expressed her frustration over not feeling the peaceful and enlightened moments during her meditation that she expected. What was she DOING wrong? What could she DO to change the nature of her practice? What could Deepak DO to help her?

And with his iconic glasses and his present nature,  Deepak simply shared with the woman that you recognize your thoughts of DOING and then you BE with them. You DO and then you BE. You DO BE DO BE DO.  And then the most delightful giggle emerged from this wise modern day guru.

I'm reminded of this moment frequently lately and using it as my daily mantra as I continue to step more fully into myself everyday.

With the holidays literally upon us, I wish everyone the gift of presence and pause. To find some light, love, and goodness that exists in some capacity for each of us and simply BE with it. Trust me, this is the good stuff...







Sunday, December 8, 2013

What Just Happened? - The Official Book


Thank you to Kelly Curnow for capturing, compiling, crafting and caring so much to put together this most gracious gift. I'm touched beyond words and grateful for this metaphorical + literal bookend. #movingon #newbeginnings 


video

Friday, December 6, 2013

Stepping Forward

I'll be honest, it's been a pretty emotionally challenging time following my treatment. While I expected to be elated that my treatment was over, what I encountered is that EVERYTHING about my treatment was over.  The constant attention. The focus. The community I visited weekly that nurtured me. While it took some time, I grew accustomed to these things and without them I was disoriented.  Despite still being surrounded by so much love and support, I was on my own and living the life of a survivor.

All of these feelings were validated during my "survivorship" appointment with my Doctor a week ago. During our time together she spoke about the sense of loss that follows treatment and simply acknowledged that without the focus of the weekly treatments, our emotions have freedom to finally express the trauma we have experienced physically and emotionally, and the importance of exploring different channels of support (which I am).  And it was at that moment that I realized I am in mourning. Not just over the loss of who I was prior to my diagnosis, but the loss of the community that I came to love and rely on during my treatment.

As I emerge back into the world, I find myself wanting to just let people know that I have in fact survived cancer.  I keep saying it repeatedly almost as if I'm trying to convince and remind myself. Not just what I overcame, but the gifts that I discovered. I've felt overwhelmed with the past but uncertain of my future. I've felt paralyzed as to how to move forward, knowing I am forever changed.

Just as I was experiencing this realization of my journey, a dear friend (thank you Jen Spencer) introduced me to a book called Second Firsts by Christina Rasmussan. In it she talks about the "Waiting Room" where we are in between the past of our old selves but have not yet stepped into our new world order.  It's safe in the Waiting Room  and kind of hard to leave.  Let's just say my waiting room is super cozy, so I could totally relate.

It just so happened that the author was speaking at my local bookstore so I went to hear her.  She shared her own story of loss and the amazing transformation she has experienced in her life by having the courage to really honor the grieving process and start to re-engage with life in a conscious and loving way. It was inspiring and reminded me that perhaps the best is yet to come. It allowed me to peak beyond the window of my waiting room and see a future where I was living a life of love, vitality, light, grace, ease, mindfulness, creativity, joy, laughter, and spark!  All the things that I discovered at such a monumental level throughout my treatment were manifesting in this future life but without the illness and treatment as the catalysts. I also learned through this book, that while I was now technically deemed a survivor, my survivor self had served its purpose of protection and I could let her go.  With her release and shedding of that armor, I can start to feel the tickle of my new regenerating cells and sprit percolating with light, sparkle, and shine as they begin to breakthrough into the world.

Now the challenge is having the courage to open the door into this new life and all the uncertainty that it holds.  But if there is one thing that this year has taught me is that I can do uncertainty. Or rather I can BE with uncertainty.  It's in the uncertainty where being present (if we allow it) provides the space so we can discover new things about ourselves that we never knew possible and live from that place of faith and grace. And for me, that is kind of the adventure.

I had Christina sign my book and we spoke for a few moments. She looked straight in my eyes and said "I see that sparkle in your eye, and you need to know that you have such unbelieveable gifts waiting for you and a beautiful life ahead that you can't even imagine." I was overcome by her empathy and validation. But more importantly, I believed her.

And so I start with small steps forward knowing that they will become bigger, more frequent and fuller everyday.